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Feeding Frenzy 

Caterers shift from sustenance to style as social events reemerge.

In culinary terms, there's a big difference between tacos served at a dusty demolition site and platters of beggar's purses -- stuffed with braised duck, collard greens and diced tasso all neatly bound up with a ribbon made from chives -- served at a corporate holiday party downtown. In terms of time in post-Katrina New Orleans, however, the difference was only a few weeks.

Food Art Inc., a local catering company, got back to work at its looted but functional office and kitchen in the Warehouse District in early October. Initially, the orders came almost exclusively from work sites where crews of 50 or 70 or 100 men needed lunch delivered. Crews of Latino and Hispanic workers asked for tacos on corn tortillas and other familiar fare from home; crews that came in from the Midwest wanted more meat-and-potatoes meals. And that was how the early hurricane recovery went for Food Art, a company better known for catering upscale weddings, corporate events and swanky parties.

"The work kept us busy, kept us together," says Food Art owner Nanci Easterling. "It also allowed our customers, as they came back to the city, to see that we were in business. A lawyer would see our trucks and people at our building, and then his secretary would be calling for us to do (catering) at their office."

Easterling says she "held on and hoped" for a return of business around the holiday season and by late November was indeed getting orders for parties at offices and homes.

As the community rebuilds, bridal showers, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and Mardi Gras events are back on the calendars at local caterers, even as orders for hot lunch at work sites around the city continue to roll in. Caterers face many of the same challenges as restaurateurs struggling to rebuild -- staffing, damaged facilities and lost revenue -- but they are also finding new opportunities in the demand for their services.

Joel Fine Catering president Joel Dondis was back at work two weeks after the storm, while floodwater was still standing in large swaths of the city. One of the casualties of the flood was Joel's main kitchen and all of the equipment at its headquarters just off South Broad Street. But the company was able to relocate its entire operation to its second facility at the kitchen of the Hampton Inn & Suites downtown, and Joel was soon fulfilling very large catering contracts for FEMA and other agencies. At the enormous Domino sugar refinery in Arabi, Joel's crews worked out of kitchens set up in 18-wheelers and, at the peak of the job, were serving the repair workers there 800 meals a day in dining rooms built in trailers.

"We don't make one type of food; we see ourselves as food technicians with expertise in logistics and planning, and that's why we were able to get these jobs," says Dondis.

Large government and institutional jobs are still coming in, but now parties are taking center stage as the city's social calendar is restored. Dondis says people who had postponed weddings during the fall are rebooking them with a vengeance, and he is even hearing about a fresh wave of engagements from couples who had weathered the storm and decided to take the plunge of marriage in its wake.

"We're booking weddings every day and seeing a very steady increase in social events," says Dondis. "We're having our busiest year in 13 years."

One reason demand is up in a city that still has only a fraction of its residents and visitors back is the supply side of the equation, since some caterers are finding it impossible to reopen. A prominent example is Partysist, which has not resumed business after its 10,000-sqaure-foot facility on Olive Street near the interstate was inundated with flood waters. Co-owner Lea Freeman says she's not yet sure what will happen with Partysist, though it may evolve into a different type of food business.

The wake of Hurricane Katrina is the first year out of the gate for The Savvy Gourmet, which opened in August with a business model combining cooking classes and retail kitchenware sales with catering. Since reopening in October, the owners quickly saw the demand for catering shoot up in a city short on functioning kitchens and decided it was a chance to make a name for their fledging service. So in late November they merged with Palate of New Orleans, a catering company started less than a year earlier by Glenn Vatshell, whose resume includes executive chef roles at the high-profile caterers Taste in New York and Now We're Cooking in San Francisco. Palate was gearing up for a promising season when Katrina cleared the books, but Vatshell says being part of the multi-faceted Savvy operation has helped him get back on track quickly. He anticipates a strong Carnival season and says clients seem eager to celebrate and welcome their friends and family back to the city.

"People are very excited about coming back and being social, the old New Orleans attitude is back, and I think people are determined to make our city work again," he says.

Like The Savvy Gourmet, Bella Luna Chef-owner Horst Pfeifer went into the catering business in a big way after Katrina, though under different circumstances. The roof of his romantic Italian restaurant perched over the French Market was ripped off by the storm winds. The building's landlord is the City of New Orleans, and by mid-January the roof still had not been sealed, allowing fresh water damage with each new rainy day. Since October, Pfeifer and some of the employees from his restaurant have been staying in business by providing catering services from the kitchen of his Warehouse District special events hall, the Foundry. Like other caterers, he started making box lunches and similar fare for work crews but more recently has been catering weddings and parties at the Foundry and off-site. He intends to reopen Bella Luna, but says the timeline relies on when the city can make repairs to the building. In the meantime, he is working on a deal to provide food for the Meals on Wheels service with the New Orleans Council on Aging, which lost its Mid-City facility to floodwaters.

click to enlarge "People are very excited about coming back and being - social," says Glenn Vatshell, who merged his own Palate - of New Orleans catering company with The Savvy - Gourmet. "The old New Orleans attitude is back, and I - think people are determined to make our city work - again." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "People are very excited about coming back and being social," says Glenn Vatshell, who merged his own Palate of New Orleans catering company with The Savvy Gourmet. "The old New Orleans attitude is back, and I think people are determined to make our city work again."
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